[Cataclysm] You don’t have to be crazy to do blacksmithing, but it helps

The price of ore seems to have settled as much as it is going to in the short term so I decided I might as well level up Blacksmithing. (If you are looking for a guide for levelling Blacksmithing, this is as good as any. The only place I disagree is that I’d make Pyrium Weapon Chains from 500-510.)

Every time I raise the skill by another point I feel like a prize idiot. It’s expensive in terms of materials, and you barely have any consumables to sell. I would never recommend this tradeskill to a new player. I have never seen any other blacksmith recommend it either. The only thing it really has going for it at the moment is that Blizzard didn’t put any higher level Cataclysm recipes for sockets, so if you just want extra sockets for your gloves and wrists, you don’t actually need to level blacksmithing past 400.

Especially when jewelcrafters make tons of gold, have lots of different gem cuts to sell, have daily quests and can also make really good trinkets for themselves. It’s not remotely on par. They also tend to drive up the price of ore, because they can make more money from it than blacksmiths can on the whole. This is why it’s a pain in the arse to have to share raw crafting materials with a more profitable profession.

Having said that, if you are crafting then you should be selling PvP gear at the moment. The new arena season has just started. This is about the only time you’ll get good prices for blue PvP gear so make the most of it. I sold some blue plate gloves for 2k yesterday. And don’t forget the weapon chains, which are fairly cheap to make too.

But I want to go back to the crazy material requirements to level blacksmithing. Obsidium, the lower level Cataclysm ore, has been in short supply recently. Blacksmiths require 4 pieces of ore to make 1 piece of folded obsidium, which is the base material for levelling blacksmithing to 500ish. So when you see a recipe that requires 20 folded obsidium, you’re looking at 4 stacks of ore. Oh, and it won’t sell for anything remotely near the cost of that ore because most people will realise that if they keep questing they will probably get a better quest reward eventually.

But wait, it gets better. Once you hit 500, you need to buy all your recipes with large amounts of elementium ore. Granted, some of them are PvP blues which sell well at the moment. Others are epics which all require truegold (available on a 24 hour alchemy cooldown) and chaos orbs (BoP drop from the end boss of a heroic), and lots of volatile element drops. It’s fine that epics are supposed to be difficult, but I wonder how many players  will be willing to pay the sort of prices that would incur. Mind you, someone just paid me 2k for some blue PvP gauntlets so who knows? Only one way to find out. (Incidentally, if you are a tank or melee dps, pick the caster epic recipes if you want people to run heroics with you to help get ‘their’ obs. If you are dps or healer, pick the tanking epics. etc.)

Bottom line is that for crafting professions at the moment – blacksmithing, tailoring, leatherworking – the material requirements to level the skill are pretty high. There are fewer zones than in previous expansions in which to compete with other gatherers if you want to gather your own. And volatiles in particular can only be farmed in a few places. So if you aim to make gold via gathering, expect a lot of competition. (Having said that, I am getting pretty good at the Obsidium circuit in Vash’jir.)

And also, Blizzard doesn’t really care that some professions are simply better than others for making gold. Jewelcrafting has been good ever since it was introduced. Alchemy looks to have been given some perks this expansion too, with the very desirable truegold transmute (in the last expansion, miners had the equivalent) and they also have options to transmute volatiles, and presumably will be able to transmute epic gems when those get introduced.

Anyone having better luck with their professions?

Cataclysm Screenshot of the Day

cata_daypic8

This was taken inside the Vortex Pinnacle, a 5 man instance which is all about the element of air. Those teeny black things in the middle are our characters running back after a wipe. It’s hard to really do justice to the scale of this place, it’s gorgeous.

How to acquire Wrath (level 80) heirloom items in WoW

heirloom sword

Heirloom PvP sword - note the bound on account and gold coloured text

Heirloom Items have been one of the great innovations of the current Warcraft expansion. There are three reasons for this:

  1. They are account bound. You can pass them freely between any character on your server which is on the same account, even between horde and alliance.
  2. These items are designed for alts. Whereas a normal WoW item has fixed stats, an heirloom grows in power in proportion to the character wielding it. It will always be roughly equivalent to a good blue item of similar level, and will scale smoothly from level 1-80. Plate heirlooms even scale down to chain if the wearer is below level 40 (so that low level warriors and paladins can use them), similarly chain items scale down to leather at low level.
  3. As well as scaling with level, some of the heirloom items also give the wearer a permanent xp boost. Other games may let you buy a temporary +10% xp potion, but some heirlooms offer that bonus permanently.

Currently available heirlooms include a wide choice of weapons, chest pieces, shoulders, trinkets, and a ring. And characters can equip any heirloom of an appropriate armour type or lower (so for example, your resto shaman could use cloth heirloom shoulders).

If you can equip a new alt with heirlooms, you are not only giving it a boost but also making the levelling process much easier on yourself. No need to keep looking for a new weapon every few levels, just use an heirloom and don’t worry about it.

OK, so you are playing WoW at the moment and would like to earn some heirlooms for your alts and to help prepare for Cataclysm, how can you do that? There are three different methods for buying heirlooms – all of them will require a high level character as the buyer (at least level 70 although it will be difficult to get enough emblems, seals, shards etc before the buyer is level 80.)

A fourth method is that an heirloom ring (+5% xp) can be acquired if you win the weekly Ka’luak fishing derby. The ring cannot be gotten in any other way.

Buying Heirlooms with Emblems of Triumph (Group PvE Route)

Emblems of Triumph are the rewards given for running Wrath instances, heroics, and lower tier raids (Naxxramas, Malygos, Ulduar, and Trial of the Crusader).

  • In general, you will receive 2 emblems of triumph for completing a random (normal) instance via the dungeon finder (first instance of the day only, any random instances after that give cash and xp instead.)
  • Heroic instances give more emblems. There will be one for each boss in addition to the two awarded at instance completion (the first instance of the day will give two emblems of frost instead.)
  • Lower tier raids award one emblem per boss.
  • The weekly raid quest awards 5 emblems of triumph and 5 emblems of frost.

You can run normal Wrath instances in levelling gear. If you wish to run heroics, it would be a good idea to gear up a bit and get some practice first. This means that there is a trade-off between spending your emblems on gear that will make it easier for you to run heroics (and hence get emblems more quickly), or saving up for the heirlooms first.

To put this into perspective, you would have to run  random normal instances for 20 days to acquire enough emblems to buy an heirloom chest. You could acquire the same number of emblems from 6-8 heroics which you could run back to back in a single day, if you really wanted to (warning: I don’t actually recommend doing this).

Heirloom costs with emblems of triumph

  • Chest (+10% xp) – 40 emblems
  • Shoulders (+10% xp) – 40 emblems
  • 1 handed weapon – 40 emblems
  • 2 handed weapon – 65 emblems
  • Trinket – 50 emblems

How to buy your heirlooms with emblems of triumph

allyvendor

The heirloom vendors are located with the other emblem vendors inside the Horde or Alliance specific areas in Dalaran.  Enchanter Isian is the Alliance vendor, and Enchanter Erodin does the honours for the Horde.

allyemblem You will notice that the vendors want to be paid in emblems of heroism. But you only have emblems of triumph!

Fear not, it is possible to convert your emblems into lower tier ones (which is what emblems of heroism are), although it is mildly annoying to have to do so.

conversion

1. First go to the emblem of triumph vendor. On the very last page of items which they sell, you will see Emblem of Conquest. You can exchange emblems of triumph for emblems of conquest on a 1:1 basis. So if you want to buy an heirloom chest, first buy 40 emblems of conquest.

2. Then go to the emblem of conquest vendor. Just as above, on the very last page of items, you will see Emblem of Valor for sale which you can buy for emblems of conquest. Buy 40 (or however many) emblems of valor with your emblems of conquest.

3. Then go to the emblem of valor vendor. Again, on the last page of items that they sell emblems of heroism and each one will cost one emblem of valor. Swap your emblems of valor for emblems of heroism.

4. Now finally you can go and buy your heirlooms!!

If you also have spare emblems of frost which you’d like to use for this, you can convert them into emblems of triumph at the frost vendor in the same way. So do that first and then go to step 1, above.

Buying PvP Heirlooms with Stone Keeper’s Shards

Another way to buy heirloom items is using Stone Keeper’s Shards. These are awarded every time you kill an instance boss while your faction holds Lake Wintergrasp. They are also awarded for completing daily PvP quests in Wintergrasp.

You’ll tend to acquire these in large amounts if your faction does regularly hold Wintergrasp and you run instances, and the cost of the heirlooms reflects this. If you don’t want heirlooms, you can also buy gems and enchants with the shards.

The PvP heirloom vendor is inside the keep in Lake Wintergrasp so you can also only buy the items when your faction holds the zone.

Costs are as follows:

  • Shoulders (+10% xp) – 200 shards
  • 1 handed weapon – 200 shards
  • 2 handed weapon – 325 shards
  • trinket – 250 shards

Note: Heirloom chests are not available as PvP rewards.

Buying PvE Heirlooms with Champion’s Seals (solo PvE)

The last way of buying heirlooms involves the Argent Tournament. Before you can even access the vendor, you must have completed the Crusader achievement and also be exalted with the Silver Covenant/ Sunreaver faction. (Note: This may be very grindy and does involve lots of jousting and daily quests.)crusaderemb

Champion’s Seals are awarded by the Argent Tournament for any quests that you complete for them. This includes all the Argent Tournament dailies that you access once you are a champion for at least one faction. You can also earn Champion’s Seals by completing the Trial of the Champion instance on heroic mode. (1 seal per boss.)

The heirloom vendor is located inside the big Argent Crusade tent at the tournament, the heirlooms are identical to the PvE ones which you can buy with emblems of triumph, and costs are as follows:

  • Chest (+10% xp) – 60 seals
  • Shoulders (+10% xp) – 60 seals
  • 1 handed weapon (melee) – 60 seals
  • 1 handed weapon (caster) – 75 seals
  • 2 handed weapon – 90 seals
  • trinket –- 75 seals

The easiest way to buy heirlooms is by instancing, and then using emblems of triumph for PvE heirlooms and shards to buy PvP heirlooms (either of which will be fine if your main goal is to ease levelling).

It is very difficult to buy heirlooms before the buyer is level 80 (this has been a big criticism of the heirloom system). The only way to do so would be via daily random normal instances (2 emblems of triumph per run) — although you can also access the Argent Tournament at level 77, by the time you have done enough quests to get the Crusader title, chances are that you’ll have hit level 80 anyway.

ps. I would not be surprised to see these turning up for sale in the cash shop at some point, but Blizzard have not yet mentioned any plans to do so.

The problem of stealth in MMOs

Melmoth writes about his fabulous Warden in LOTRO – it’s a very powerful and capable class, and great for both solo and group work. It can tank a bit, has some self heals, ranged as well as melee attacks, gets some AE capability, and can even teleport around the map (very useful in LOTRO, which has a large world map).

Whereas my burglar …. has stealth. Which doesn’t work all that well in groups, in raids, or against tentacles (this is a real tentacle by the way, not a tame pond one in the garden).

watcher_dangling

Stealth classes are usually popular in games. Being able to pick your fights is a huge advantage in PvP – the classic stealther attack of leaping out of hiding and backstabbing an opponent is fun to play (and a nightmare to balance).

Stealth has advantages in PvE also. In particular if you are an explorer.

  • Ever wished your game had a pause button? If you are a stealther, then it does. Any time you need to get the phone or grab a drink, just hit the stealth button. Your character will (probably) be safely there when you get back.
  • Ever needed to get to a quest mob that is behind a bunch of trash and wanted to do it quickly? Stealthers can usually avoid a fight whenever they want to. It’s great for exploring dangerous terrain also.
  • Or even if you’ve ever just wanted to check quickly if a quest mob is present, stealth saves the bother of having to clear an area unnecessarily.

But stealth simply isn’t that great an advantage compared to just being generally badass. You won’t notice this so much in WoW because the classes are all generally very powerful. But if a champion can mow through mobs almost as quickly as a burglar can stealth, then stealth isn’t really much of an advantage. Avoiding combat is never as rewarding as killing mobs in most MMOs.

Most players like to mow through mobs. A rogue-type class that dances around with crowd control, debuffs, and juggling survivability cooldowns is never going to kill a bunch of mobs as fast as the plate wearer with the devastating AE attacks. In WoW they just gave rogues better AE, and watered down the roguelike feel of the class.

In games like WoW that have become so focussed on the group content, and where the main object in instances is to clear then as fast as possible, rogues and their stealth playstyle has no purpose. The tank pulls, the healer heals, and everyone else AEs. No one wants stealth or the more strategic sneak-and-dodge pace of pulls which goes with it.

LOTRO isn’t quite the same style of game. They do provide many more quests which ask characters to scout out an area – something which stealthers can do quickly and neatly. There are entire zones (ie. most of Moria) where simply exploring and finding your way around is a big challenge, and stealth can be really useful. There are solo dungeons where a stealther can explore and set up ambushes without worrying about a group zooming ahead of them and just nuking everything anyway.

It may be that the different pace of a soloing stealther is one that can never really fit into a group based MMO. Not unless the whole game was about thieves (which would be pretty cool, actually). Maybe stealth belongs back in the era where games were more about exploring and less about quick badges and achievements.

[SWTOR] Player housing, PvP, new video, and more from E3

Star Wars: The Old Republic, as befits the best funded game in history, has put up a strong showing at E3 this week. So here’s a summary of some of the posts and details.

Bioware are very keen to quell any rumours that the game will be a Massively Multiplayer Solo Game. There is going to be plenty of group content, battlegrounds and PvP, raids, instances, the whole shebang.

Now my perspective is that I decided that I wanted to play this thing after playing Dragon Age. Bioware have the ‘it’ factor for RPGs like very few other developers. So the rest of the information is gravy. But for those who have not yet made up their minds ….

But first for something completely different – an unrelated video

New out for E3, the Hope video, showing a battle between Republic and Empire forces on Alderaan (which looks a bit like where my friend lives in Southern Germany).

It looks phenomenal, it also contains no gameplay footage. So what to make of a trailer like this? Enh, enjoy it for what it is. They’re showing off the setting and some of the classes and combat abilities you might see in game. Although the Jedi/Sith get all the best moves, the Trooper (notionally the hero of this piece) looks pretty darned cool as well.

And a far more related video

If you have 30 minutes to spare, also check out the 30 min broadcast on G4 which does include some live gameplay footage. This link above didn’t work for me, but if you can either get to it or saw the show, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Let’s talk about some of the new features announced this week

The two big reveals during the EA session were that players will each get a ship, to use as housing, and that the game will sport some PvP gameplay via battlegrounds.

A ship of my own – whilst some commentators have been going nuts expecting space combat and spaceflight in game, it seems clear to me that this isn’t Bioware’s plan. Maybe in future, but for now, the ship is going to be a private base of operations for your character which can move from planet to planet (eg. as in KOTOR).

You’ll be able to customise the ship, invite friends round to see it, and intriguingly Bioware hint that each class will have a different type of ship. This makes a lot of sense, the game is heavily based on giving people lots of class specific content and who would expect a smuggler to fly the same type of ship as a trooper?

There has always been a disconnect in MMOs with housing between the idea that your house is your home base, and the notion that adventurers wander the world smiting evil. You don’t normally think of Sir Killsalot the questing knight coming home every evening to a cosy cottage with his favourite stuffed dragon head in the garden. And as the game worlds expand (via expansions and new zones), it seems even stranger to be going back to your original home every night.

Obviously magic portals can cover a lot of ground by explaining how these things are possible. But the basic problem that a wandering adventurer probably doesn’t have a permanent home is a storytelling and immersion issue. Having a space ship base in a space game resolves a lot of these issues. Your home moves with you, problem solved.

Battle zones! Bioware announced that players will be able to fight the opposite faction in SWTOR in battle zones (such as Alderaan, shown in the video). I’m not clear as to whether this is limited world PvP (ie. an entire PvP zone and people can drop in or out as they wish) or instanced PvP (such as battlegrounds or scenarios) but expect to hear more about this as the months go on towards release.

More interviews, more information

The fansites and official blogs are also getting more face time with Bioware and a chance to see a live in-game combat demo. Here are a couple of summaries of their experience/ chat, from Massively and Darth Hater.

One thing that comes out of this about classes. In the segment that the press saw, the Trooper acted as main tank, but it sounds as though all of the classes could fill more than one role. So the Jedi consular was healing but also on dps and crowd control. So was the smuggler (a stealth healing class, just what the world needs!). The Jedi knight was dps but also off tanking. And the Trooper was putting out a lot of damage as he tanked.

That probably gives us more idea about how the game will play out, and I like what I’m hearing. Massively also discuss crafting in SWTOR in their interview (it’ll be like WoW)

So, anyone feeling the Force yet?

We need bigger links!

  1. In a week where Blizzard announced their plans for upgrading Battle.net to support online Starcraft 2 play, RPS asks whether people really want to play online RTS. If you’re a casual player, do you want to be thrown in amongst the hardcore even if the vaunted ‘skill matching’ works as intended? Do you even see them as PvP games, or prefer your strategy to be player vs environment?
  2. Farmville sells its most expensive item, would you spend $42 on a ‘cheat code’?
  3. Would older gamers rather play together than die alone? wired.com asks whether shooters with the associated hyper-competitive online posturing are really a young man/woman’s game. (Note: this is why it could be a mistake for MMOs to drift to more shootery gameplay, do they not know the age of their demographic?)
  4. Tamarind@Righteous Orbs has an unfortunately named alt (but at least people will remember his name!)
  5. Tanking class comparisons? We got ‘em. Big Bear Butt Blogger has been playing both a paladin and druid tank lately and has written a couple of posts comparing them. Shintar has another angle on paladin vs druid tanking – I wonder if she’s more objective because neither is her main. Gameldar also writes about paladin tanking for warriors (ie. if you’re switching), but again he steers clear of actually making any value judgements.
  6. evizaer has been playing and writing about Global Agenda recently and in this post he explains why DPS Medics are a design failure. This will be a familiar argument to anyone who has ever played or whined about healers who don’t heal in PvP.
  7. Nerf the Cat plays through the Dragon Age DLCs, Warden’s Keep and Return to Ostagar.
  8. James Wallis proposes a new standard for distinguishing between games and … non-games (eg. software toys.)
  9. Locke Webster on the MTV blog looks at how Mass Effect changed the way he roleplays. (I have a longer post planned on this.)
  10. We like stories about good vs evil, but what is evil anyway? Jon Evans on the tor.com blog argues that every society has its own, changing notions of evil. And fantasy or futuristic societies even moreso. It’s an interesting thought for roleplayers.
  11. Syp explains why no one cares about Taris, referring to the latest SW:TOR infosnippet. I think the SW:TOR team should hire some cricket commentators, they have plenty of experience in filling airtime with chatter while raid stops play.
  12. And finally Mattel unveils … Computer Engineer Barbie. I’ve heard complaints that the laptop is Bismuth Pink but I think they miss the actual subversive nature of the new career — it shows that computer engineers can be girly too, and that’s the point.

Are bad factions more popular?

Every time a new game launches which has more than one faction, where one is identified as ‘the good guys’ and the other as ‘the other guys’ we end up wondering whether players in general prefer to play as good or evil.

In WoW, the Horde vastly outnumbered Alliance on PvP servers at the start, and still does. In WAR, Destruction vastly outnumbered Order on all servers at the beginning. A friend who plays Aion noted that Asmodian seemed more popular than Elyos on all the servers he checked recently.

The population balance isn’t always for the same reason. In WoW Horde really did have better PvP racials and classes (shaman) at the start. Destruction always looked much cooler than Order in WAR. When I took a look at the Aion beta, my first reaction was that Asmodeans looked cooler than Elyos too and I thought most people would prefer them.

So I see a few common points:

  1. Designers find it easier to make the evil factions look cool (where cool is some combination of look and styling that appeals to gamers). How a character looks is probably the single strongest reason for a gamer to pick it initially.
  2. Tied to #1, evil factions often have a backstory that primes them as being very tough and badass. Instead of heroes, they are portrayed as anti-heroes to make them more powerful as enemies. The bad guys also often have more interesting stories in general – is it just easier to write lore about evil or savage races?
  3. ‘Evil’ factions follow a morality that supports how gamers play (i.e. go out and commit mass slaughter and looting). They have more ‘fun’.  So many gamers find it easier to relate to them. This is one of the reasons a lot of PvP type players are drawn to the bad boys in game.
  4. Even though many games had a majority of the evil faction at the beginning, this often balances out later. There are lots of reasons for this. Some are natural balancing factors, others are devs rebalancing to lure people to the weaker faction. One of the big balancing factors in a PvP game is that the less played faction gets more fights. Either because there is a battleground mechanic that limits how many of each side can play, or in an open world game, they’re just more likely to encounter enemies when they go roaming.

Frank@Overly Positive reminded me about this with a post about faction balance in Star Wars. Fans on the SW:TOR forums are complaining that Bioware is making the Sith seem too cool. I think the fans have lost it – Star Wars has some of the most badass good guys in cinema. The Sith have to be very cool indeed to lure players who planned to be Han Solo over to their side. And if Bioware’s game is going to rely heavily on balanced PvP then there need to at least be some Sith in game.

Star Trek is going to have similar problems. All the films and TV series are about the Federation. So how to lure people into playing enough of the ‘bad guys’ that there’s going to be some people for the good guys to fight.

Some of this will be resolved by hardcore players deciding that only pansies want to be Han Solo et al and again picking the side that is likely to be less numerous because it’ll give more PvP and a badass demeanor. And even if PvP in these games winds up matching the numbers of the more popular good side against the hardcore badassness of the bad side, at least that’s atmospheric.

No, the problem comes a few months down the line when the hardcore guys are winning enough of the fights that lots of other people join them. At that point, the side that was less numerous at the start ends up being more more hardcore and more numerous. Some of the hardcore switch sides, and the cycle begins again.

Do you feel drawn towards playing the bad boy antiheroes? Like the goth Asmodean styling? Does it make a difference whether it’s a heavily PvP game or not?

Twinks, Heirlooms, and Morality

Yup, it’s a morality tale for Friday.

Gordon opines that twinking is a form of cheating in his We Fly Spitfires blog. His reasoning is that supplying other characters with cash or equipment is not in the spirit of MMOs. Nope, they are like the American Frontier – you go in with nothing but the sweat on your brow and the shirt on your back and see who has the guts, luck and moxie to live off the land (ie. the low level mob drops). Also it drives up the prices of low level gear and gives experienced players an extra advantage over newbies.

Andrew rebutts this at Of Teeth and Claws, and asserts every player’s right to twink out their alts. He comments that aside from the fact that anyone can twink an alt, it’s also a metagame that a lot of people enjoy.

It’s hard to really argue that supplying alts with gear and cash is against the spirit of the game, when the game lets you do it. People like treating their new alts like spoiled children with lavish gifts and treats. Not only that but sending along some good items and gold adds  interesting replay value to alts – you can power through all the quests that were really annoying when you did it the first time, see how the class plays at low level when it’s well geared, for example. And we love to do it.

I’ve also played games where you couldn’t easily send money and gear between alts and we all found ways around it. Get a trusted friend to hold the items while you swap alts and then trade them back to you. Get a second account. Drop items on the floor and quickly relog so that the alt can grab them before they disappear.

Is it cheating? Nope. Although it does have the effect that newbies have a much rougher game experience than alts. We can call this the school of hard knocks. At least everyone had to do it once.

Twinking for PvP is an altogether more interesting metagame. MMOs aren’t usually designed to be balanced below the level cap, you’re intended to make your way through the levels and then do whatever it is that the devs have planned for max level characters. (Or roll another alt if it’s CoH.) So if players choose to make a project out of finding out how powerful a low level alt can become for use in level capped battlegrounds, it’s an interesting challenge. It could involve farming for drops, buying expensive items and enchants, getting boosts through instances and finding clever ways around game mechanics that weren’t really designed to be given out at those levels. And the rewards? Becoming a virtual god amongst men when fighting non-twinks.

Because the game isn’t balanced at low level, twinks can be monstrously powerful in comparison to new players at the same level. I’ve fought twinked out hunters in Warsong Gulch at level 19 whose pets had more health than my alts. It may not be cheating, but it doesn’t entirely feel fair either. At that point you hope that your team has as many twinks on it as the other side so they can keep each other occupied.

What I do like about twinking is that it feels anarchic, as though you’re somehow fighting The Man by insisting on playing the game by your own rules. It’s also controversial and guaranteed to stir people up – no one enjoys a PvP fight where they literally don’t have a chance.

But is it really the twinks who are to blame for that, or the game design that lets gear give such a huge advantage?

How Heirlooms are changing the twinking game

Heirloom items are the new big thing for alts in WoW with this expansion. They are bound to the account not the character, their stats scale with you as you level from 1-80, and they are roughly equivalent to good blue items of their level at all times. You can buy them either with daily quest rewards from the Argent Tournament, with badges that  you get from running heroic instances, or with the tokens that you get from PvP in Lake Wintergrasp (for the PvP heirlooms).

That has both encouraged twinks and taken the wind out of the market at the same time. No one pays high prices for the old favourite twink weapons any more, they just use heirlooms. There is some grinding involved to get the tokens together but once you have, you can just keep passing the gear from twink to twink. All your alts who use the heirlooms are effectively twinked.

So at this point, it’s really hard to argue that passing nice stuff to your alts isn’t an accepted part of the game, at least in WoW. And PvP twinks can face off against other PvP twinks in battlegrounds by turning their xp off. Again, hard to argue that it isn’t now an accepted part of the game.

I do wonder if some of the charm and challenge of twinking has gone from the game with the introduction of the heirlooms – specifically designed for twinking alts and relatively easily available to max level characters. Don’t get me wrong, I like the heirlooms and I think they’re an interesting experiment in removing gear dependence completely in the levelling game while leaving it in endgame. They also nudge endgame players towards alting as an alternative to raiding or PvP.

More than ever, the new player is disadvantaged in PvP. And not only the actual newbie, but anyone who rerolls on a different server where they have no high level sugar daddy to feed them gold and heirlooms.

But guess what, for an immodest RL fee to swap servers (and possibly factions too), an alt from the same server as your high level character can wing its way to the new guy, bearing gifts of heirlooms from afar. There’s going to be a lot of money in this for Blizzard if they don’t do the decent thing and implement cross-server mail.

A lot of people will pay for the fun and convenience of battleground twinkage and faster, smoother levelling. And the old twink playstyle of working out how best to pimp a lot level alt may be gone forever – because the answer will always be ‘use heirlooms’.

How things are shaping up for Aion

It was back into the world of Atreia last weekend for a second bite at the Aion beta cherry. This time we had the chance to play Asmodeans — the evil faction of winged humanoids — up to level 10. The game now has a release date (September) and it’s looking better than ever.

A few baseline observations first. As an MMO Aion has clearly learned many many lessons from the current generation of games. Questing is smooth and takes you neatly on a tour of the newbie zones. The writing (and localisation) is great, although they still need to translate the help system. Controls are smooth and easy to pick up, using a lot of the standard UI features that players will be used to.

Character classes will be familiar also. There are two heavy armour classes (one tank, one dps), two casters (one nuker, one pet based), two healers (one ranged, one melee), and two non-caster dps (one dual wielding melee, one bow user).

They have also taken some design aspects from Asian MMOs which are less familiar to western players. Casters have to rest to regain mana (i.e. you use the rest command which makes you sit down). There’s no auction house, instead players can populate their own private vendor and set it out for other players to look at. This means that in any populated area, you’ll have to push your way past hordes of players in vendor mode. And if you want to buy, you’ll need to browse all the vendors individually.

(Edited to add: OK, I’m wrong and there is an Auction House in the capital city. Sorry for misinformation. But we were just playing from levels 1-10 in a weekend beta, and all the populated areas were heavy with player vendors so I’m just saying what I saw.)

You can also kill-steal – if two people who aren’t grouped attack the same mob then the xp/loot goes to whoever did the most damage.

It’s beautiful. I’ll keep coming back to this (and so will everyone else who writes about the game) because the game is absolutely stunning. This is partly because they’ve thrown out the ‘green and brown for more realism’ rulebook that EQ2 and LOTRO designers are so attached to and used the whole paintbox. It’s a colourful game. It also runs very well on my mid-range system. No glitches, no crashes, no slomo frame rates, no falling down holes in the map.

It isn’t just the backdrops and character designs either. The animations are fantastic; your character looks around, fidgets, licks her lips, and acts as if she’s a part of the world around her. Animals are brilliantly animated also.

If you like pretty games and want to be blown away, it’ll be worth a month of anyone’s money just to see it in action.

Storytelling Innovations

It’s very easy to sweep Aion away under the category of ‘been there, seen that’, but that would miss some of the innovations. One of them is the neat insertion of cut scenes into quest dialogue. Not every quest or discovery comes with a cut scene but occasionally you’ll get a few seconds of camera work which does give a more cinematic experience.

In particular, we loved the little cut scene that showed you exactly what happened to some poor mage’s beloved pet when we were playing the good angels last time around. It was unexpected, short enough not to be annoying, and very funny.

But the most stunning thing about the initial storylines is the great use they make of flashbacks and flash forwards. All characters start as human, and after level 9 you are able to do a quest to ascend (ie. get your wings, be transformed into an immortal angel being). Your character starts with a bad case of memory loss, but during the first ten levels, you meet people who are able to share visions of yourself in the past.

And what you see is downright amazing. You see your own character, wings and all, in awesome high level armour, in some amazing looking PvP zone. NPCs address you as Lord. You are able to play through some of the flashback sequence. It’s an amazing way to show the player what lies in store for the character if they keep playing. I’d defy anyone not to think ‘Oo, that looks cool. I’d like to do that.’

Another tweak that I loved was that the Asmodeans start as part of a gang of raiders. Your character in particular is quite an incompetent/ inexperienced raider at the beginning. And one of the NPCs lectures you when you accept a quest, saying that a true raider shouldn’t say wimpy things like ‘As you will’ when they accept a quest. They should say ‘THE TASK IS MINE’ and storm off to do it. Well, your character evidently takes this to heart because for every quest after that, the phrase you click to accept is ‘the task is mine’. It amused me, anyway.

So far, everything I have seen has also been soloable, but don’t expect that to last. There are definitely higher level quests which you’ll need to group up for. Classes do also vary at which levels they get various useful survivability skills (I struggled on my caster until she picked up a self-shield and knockback, at which point it became very easy.)

How about the PvP?

As far as I can tell, the endgame is all about PvP. There’s an open zone (or several) where you can fight other players and mobs, and capture keeps, Warhammer style. Because of the wings, PvP will have a 3D aspect. I suspect this means that casters will be more effective than melee because it’s much easier to manoeuvre in 3D when you have more range to play with. However, you can’t fly indefinitely. Your wings will get tired and you will need to come down to earth to rest them.

But I haven’t tried the PvP myself yet so I could be talking out of my hat.

When two tribes go to war

Because of the PvP side, I have to wonder how well the two factions will be balanced. They have access to identical classes, but that won’t mean much if players have a strong bias to one or the other.

Based on what I have seen in beta, I suspect most people will pick Asmodean. They seem that bit cooler, that bit more beautiful, that bit more exotic, and that bit better written. They also aren’t eeeeevil in the same way that we’re used to seeing, they’ve just had a rough deal and are more pragmatic in their drive to survive.

I will be amazed if this is not an issue.

How to get the wings

I don’t normally do this but I picked up a search term this week on the blog for ‘How do I get wings in Aion?’. So just for the record (and to prove I did it), the Ascension quest will appear in your quest log when you reach level 9. Just do that quest. You’ll get the wings, and you’ll also get to visit your local gorgeous angelic city of choice.

It’s a small world?

Summing up, it’s a beautiful game. It will blow you away if you let it. The actual gameplay feels very similar to current generation MMOs so it will be very easy to pick up for new players. Wings are great, flying is too. If you’re bored of your current game and want to try something similar (with wings) but a bit different, it’s got to be worth a shot.

I do think I get a bit worn out on the tourguide model of quest based levelling. They do it well in Aion, but a tour is still a tour. The world doesn’t feel large to me yet, and I’m not sure how many things there are to do or see if you choose to run off the rails. Also the Asmodean quests and starting areas have a bit too much in common with the Elyos – they’re good but it doesn’t really feel like a completely different experience. Similar mobs, similar terrain layout, and so on.

I know that for me, there is something missing. A sense of the world around me, perhaps. When everything is on rails there just isn’t any room for things to be there just because it would be a better simulation of a world if they were there. I’m also not thrilled with the player merchants or kill stealing. But if the quality of storytelling remains this good, it’s tempting to at least run through it once, to see how things end.

The next beta weekend phase starts on July 2nd. So scramble around for a beta key before then (or you can get one if you pre-order).